Originally Posted by Janet Albrechtsen
When does embracing race as a point of distinction become retrograde to our common humanity? Surely when it resembles a new form of apartheid, an ideological one that dictates what people of a certain colour should think and what they should write about.
Black racism is creeping on to university campuses in the US and into the broader American culture. And if it’s happening there, it can happen here.
Being squeamish about black racism will see us repeating the racism of our not very distant past. Hiding behind the walls of political correctness will prevent us from moving beyond a stultifying culture fixated on race and skin colour as a determinant of human destiny to one that understands that there is a common humanity.
Examples of a regressive obsession with race are mounting. Last month in the US, a panel discussion at Rutgers University about identity politics as a new form of racialism was subjected to the now familiar disruption: chanting, screaming and ranting from students who came not to listen but to shout down those who today hold views that are treated as confronting, offensive or, crazier still, a form of violence.
Members of the audience shouted down one speaker in particular at the event, which was part of the Unsafe Spaces college tour sponsored by left-libertarian British website Spiked. Kmele Foster, host of libertarian podcast The Fifth Column, warned against the growing “Balkanisation” of people of different races. Foster is black and he was duly accused of “deracialising” himself.
Foster pointed out that proponents of race-based identity politics have a few things in common with white supremacists. He said few in the audience would wish to hear from Richard Spencer — a white nationalist who speaks of race as a source of pride and division — because we recognise that it is backward to talk about race in that way. Yet black activists make the same claims about their race and fail to recognise how similarly retrograde their ideas are. “What’s retrograde is not the embrace of whiteness,” Foster said. “It is the embrace of race.”
The same hypocrisy strikes at the heart of “intersectionality”, the identity politics buzzword that conjoins race and sex to claim a double dose of victimhood. Writing about the Rutgers event for freethinkers online magazine Quillette, J. Oliver Conroy says “intersectionality is a strange kind of essentialism that professes to hate essentialism. It assumes people are determined by inherited characteristics, which is exactly what racists also think.”
Black racism need not be an identikit match for white racism to be equally retrograde. Racism, whatever the colour, tears at the fabric of liberalism, a set of profound beliefs based on our common humanity; of natural rights of life, liberty and property that accrue to us at birth as human beings.
It’s bad enough labelling a white person as a white supremacist for disagreeing with the agenda of black activists — as happened to Bret Weinstein, a politically progressive professor of biology at Evergreen State College in Washington state in the US. Weinstein disagreed with a blacks-only day on campus earlier this year, arguing it was divisive. What followed became a case study of the left devouring its own: they shut him down and forced a long-time fighter against racial discrimination to resign.
It’s worse when black activists try to shut down a person of colour, such as Foster, for refusing to be form-fitted into the rigid grid of identity politics. Race-based identity politics, premised on the belief that political views are dictated by skin colour, delivers a trifecta of poor outcomes for black people. It’s a travesty that those who historically had power stripped from them for being black are stripping free will and the power to think for oneself from other blacks. And screaming down debate shuts out the search for facts, making meaningful change on genuine issues of racial discrimination or law and order less likely.
Earlier this month feminist Christina Hoff Sommers spoke at Williams College in Massachusetts as part of an Uncomfortable Learning program, this time led by a handful of students to promote open debate. Like the Unsafe Spaces tour, Uncomfortable Learning invites speakers on campus who are regarded as controversial, not for being beyond the mainstream of ideas but for holding views that challenge an orthodoxy that is strangling campus free speech and intellectual curiosity. These campus discussions ought to be unremarkable but make headlines because they are met with resistance to the idea of a common humanity where people, regardless of colour and circumstance, can come to better understand one another by listening, talking and exercising empathy.
At Williams College, members of the audience turned up not to engage but to scream at Sommers and shut down the discussion. Zachary Wood, a black student who was one of the organisers of the discussion, wrote that he was informed that “many members of the Black Student Union want nothing to do with him or other black students associated with Uncomfortable Learning”.
A few months back, The Economist reported on more resistance to the idea of a shared humanity, when screaming student protesters disrupted the classes of assistant professor Lucia Martinez Valdivia, who describes herself as mixed race and queer, a teacher within the humanities department of Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Valdivia asked students not to protest and explained that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. First, students dressed in black sat quietly, then they harangued her for being a “race traitor” who favoured white supremacist beliefs because she didn’t oppose a humanities syllabus they regarded as Eurocentric. For wearing a T-shirt that said “Poetry is Lit”, they called her “anti-black” for appropriating black slang. She was labelled “ableist”, too, for taking a different view on trigger warnings. And she was called a “gaslighter” (a voguish term for emotional abuse) for making disadvantaged students doubt their own oppression.
Writing on her blog, Valdivia said: “I am scared to teach courses on race, gender or sexuality or even texts that bring these issues up in any way … I’m at a loss as to how to begin to address it, especially since many of these students don’t believe in historicity or objective facts (they denounce the latter as being a tool of the white cisheteropatriarchy).” Like Evergreen College, Reed is one of the most “progressive” colleges in the US, which today means being the least open to freedom of expression and intellectual inquiry.
Nicholas Christakis, a sociology professor at Yale University who was drawn into a campus fracas over Halloween costumes and free expression a few years ago, says that the hysteria distorts discussion of serious philosophical ideas about cultural appropriation and other issues. It’s what Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind, calls “concept creep”. As Christakis said in a podcast interview, the “history of ideas and of culture and of art and music is endless theft. It’s endless modification and transformation and exchange of ideas of thoughts and of musical and artistic forms and so forth. To start claiming that (Valdivia) couldn’t teach these things and she couldn’t wear ‘Poetry is Lit’ because she’s appropriating African-American slang is a crazy caricature of what is potentially an interesting philosophical idea to discuss.”
The flip side of claims about cultural appropriation, where only coloured authors can create characters of colour, is that certain authors must necessarily create caricatures of their own culture.
Earlier this month, Korean author Leonard Chan revealed that esteemed editors, publishers and agents rejected his seventh book, The Lockpicker, for not being Korean enough. One wrote to him: “The characters, especially the main character, just do not seem Asian enough. They act like everyone else. They don’t eat Korean food, they don’t speak Korean … For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.”
A few weeks ago a cover of Vogue magazine came in for race-based interrogation too. Featuring mixed-race model Adwoa Aboah, complaints were made that she was wearing heavy make-up, making her paler than usual. Not black enough? Not white enough? It’s two sides of the same retrograde fixation with race.
As Kenan Malik posited in The New York Times earlier this year, after three editors in Canada lost their jobs for defending cultural appropriation, imagine if Elvis Presley had been prevented from appropriating so-called black music in the 1950s? It would have done nothing to further civil rights. In an era when radio stations refused to play Chuck Berry songs, calling it “race music”, Elvis broke down barriers.
The civil rights movement confronted racism in the 50s and 60s by demanding equality regardless of skin colour. More than a half-century later the new racism, boosted by bogus calls to diversity, walls off people according to colour, culture and class, dismembering our common humanity into ever smaller pieces. The notion that personal identity, colour, race, sex or sexuality (or some bingo game of intersectionality) defines everything about a person means never rising to a higher level of understanding of the human condition. It beggars belief that this needs saying, yet today, in growing circles, it does need saying: suffering comes in many forms, our lived experiences can vary greatly in form and gradation, yet still we may share emotions of grief, alienation, fear, anger, anxiety and so on. We should beware a new racism that divides us, and in so doing destroys empathy, a core human trait that allows us to better understand one another.